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April 01, 2011   Email to Friend 

Senate panel votes to reauthorize Forever Wild

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted Thursday to reauthorize Forever Wild for another 20 years with no changes.

SB 140, sponsored by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, passed by a 5-3 vote following a public hearing that included testimony by about a dozen proponents of the measure and an equal number calling for a study of the program.

The bill would allocate up to $15 million a year for the next 20 years for the acquisition and maintenance of land in the Forever Wild program. The program is funded by interest from the oil and gas trust fund.

The Alabama Farmers Federation supports the mission of Forever Wild but believes it would be prudent for the Legislature to evaluate the program and set goals and priorities before allocating more money to buy land. Forever Wild was originally approved by voters in 1992 and does not sunset until Oct. 1, 2012. Even then, the program would continue to receive 2.5 percent of the earnings from the oil and gas trust fund and would have access to about $24 million that it currently has in a stewardship fund for the maintenance of existing Forever Wild tracts. Three Federation leaders were among those who recommended studying the program rather than pushing through a reauthorization bill a year early.

Chilton County Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell testified that he was concerned about Forever Wild’s purchase of productive farmland and timberland. He cited Forever Wild’s purchase of the State Cattle Ranch near Greensboro, the leasing of former U.S. Steel land by the program and an incident where a farmer with land adjoining a Forever Wild tract saw the market value of his land decline by 95 percent because of access issues created by the neighboring preserve.

“Forever Wild is not all bad, but the state does not need to own all the property,” Parnell said.

Lowndes County farmer Dan Rhyne recounted how a program similar to Forever Wild purchased about 3,600 acres of cotton land that he and his brother were leasing as part of their farm.

Losing the land created a hardship for the brothers, who were just starting their business.

“Agriculture is the No. 1 business in our state, and we don’t need to do anything to hurt it,” Rhyne said. “We don’t need to let the land lose the opportunity to produce for Alabama.”

Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, spoke in favor of the study committee. He pointed out that, at today’s prices, the cotton that could have been produced on the land Rhyne referenced would have generated more than $3 million in farm income.

Whatley noted that it’s hard to justify allocating up to $300 million over the next 20 years to buy land when the state is cutting state agencies and laying off employees. “It comes down to a philosophy. Either you are for bigger government or you are for smaller government,” Whatley said.

Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, also spoke in favor of a study committee.

“The State of Alabama is in a very difficult situation. The people of Alabama sent me here to set priorities,” said Reed, adding that rushing reauthorization through a year early would send the wrong message about the Legislature’s priorities.

Joining Parnell and Rhyne in offering testimony was Brian Agnew, chairman of the Bullock County Farmers Federation’s Forestry Committee. Agnew asked the committee to “review where we’ve been and assess where we’re going.” He noted that land taken out of production by Forever Wild impacts not only farmers, but also foresters and other businesses.

Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Elba, joined Whatley and Reed in supporting the study committee approach and voted against immediate reauthorization. Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, spoke against reauthorizing the program this year, and Sens. Beason and Slade Blackwell, R-Mountain Brook, spoke in favor of the measure. Those voting in favor of the measure were: Sens. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale; Ben Brooks, R-Mobile; Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro; Cam Ward, R-Alabaster and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston. Marsh said he expects the issue to be debated on the Senate floor. Both Marsh and Singleton said there are questions that need to be addressed regarding Forever Wild.

The Federation supports SJR 42 and HJR 89, sponsored by Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, and Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana. The resolutions call for the establishment of a joint legislative committee comprised of six senators and six representatives to evaluate Forever Wild and make recommendations regarding its future. The resolution would require the committee to issue its final report by May 3, 2011.

Public hearing held on limited home rule bill

A bill that would give counties the authority to enact laws related to health, public safety and land use regulation was carried over in the House County and Municipal Government Committee Wednesday following a public hearing.

HB 181, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, would allow county voters to pass zoning ordinances and other laws related to public health and safety. Brian Hardin, assistant director of the Federation’s Governmental and Agricultural Programs Department, was among those who testified at the hearing.

“Farmers already are heavily regulated at both the federal and state levels, and we don’t need to burden them with the possibility of 67 different county laws when they are trying to feed Alabama’s families,” said Hardin, adding that the bill’s language is so vague it could allow for regulation of virtually any activity.

The committee is expected to vote on HB 181 Wednesday. Federation members are encouraged to contact committee members and ask them to vote “no.” The committee includes Reps. Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, chairman; Randy Wood, R-Anniston; Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham; George Bandy, D-Opelika; Alan Boothe, R-Troy; Napoleon Bracy, D-Pritchard; Owen Drake, R-Leeds; Allen Farley, R-McCalla; Jeremy Oden, R-Vinemont; Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham; and Dan Williams, R-Athens.

Changes weaken landowner protection in liability bills

Amendments added to bills aimed at limiting the liability of landowners and agritourism operators could expose farmers to greater risk.

SB 84, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would limit the liability of landowners who lease property for hunting and fishing. SB 85, also sponsored by Sen. Allen, would limit the liability of agritourism operators and require agritourism attractions to post certain warning notices at the entrance to the activity. Both bills were amended last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee in a way that leaves the owner’s responsibility for injury open to interpretation. SB 84 is expected to be debated by the full Senate next week.

Bills in Brief

Fertilizer Preemption, SB 123 and HB 198, sponsored by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, and Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, would affirm the state’s authority to regulate fertilizer and prohibit local governments from regulating the registration, packaging, labeling, sale, storage, distribution or use of fertilizer. Both bills have passed committee and await action in their respective chambers. AFF supports.

Immigration Reform, HB 56, sponsored by Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, would create specific crimes related to illegal aliens and would require verification of the legal status by employers, among other provisions. The full House is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday. AFF opposes as written. SB 256, sponsored by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, also includes extensive immigration reform measures but uses identification cards rather than an electronic system to verify the legal status of workers. The bill has been assigned to the Senate Job Creation and Economic Development Committee. AFF opposes as written.

Deer Hunting Season, SB 124, sponsored by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, would extend the hunting season for whitetail deer by two weeks at the close of regular gun season. The bill also changes rules related to the feeding and hunting of deer. It passed the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee last week. AFF supports.

Mini Trucks, SB 253 and HB 210, sponsored by Sen. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, and Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatom, would establish a license plate category for mini-trucks and exempt such vehicles from certain title requirements. SB 253 passed the Senate Commerce, Transportation and Utilities Committee last week. HB 210 has been assigned to the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. AFF supports.

Agritourism Signage, SB 153 and HB 188, sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Red Hill, and Rep. Elwyn Thomas, R-Oneonta, would give the Department of Agriculture and Industries authority to approve roadside signage for agritourism operations. Both bills have passed committee and await action in their respective chambers. AFF supports.

Property Reappraisals, HB 324, sponsored by Rep. Todd Greeson, R-Ider, would limit property reappraisals to once every four years, provided certain conditions are met. The bill has been assigned to the House County and Municipal Government Committee. AFF supports.

Initiative and Referendum, HB 337, sponsored by Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, would allow voters to propose the enactment of laws and constitutional amendments by an initiative measure. The bill has been assigned to the House Constitution, Campaigns and Elections Committee. AFF opposes.

Cap-and-Trade Regulations, HB 68, sponsored by Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, would exempt any activity involved with the production of a product manufactured and retained within the borders of Alabama from federal cap-and-trade regulations. The bill has been assigned to the House Commerce and Small Business Committee. AFF supports.

Farm-Raised Perch, SB 49 and HB 52, sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Red Hill, and Rep. Wes Long, R-Guntersville, would allow perch raised in farm ponds to be sold, provided the seller is permitted by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. HB 52 passed the full House of Thursday. SB 49 is awaiting action n the full Senate. AFF supports.

Carrier of Last Resort, SB 87 and HB 113, sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, would add certain exceptions to the obligation of the carrier of last resort to provide basic telephone service to the premises of a permanent residence within the franchised service territory of an incumbent local exchange carrier. SB 87 awaits action in the full Senate, and HB 113 passed the House Transportation, Utilities and Infrastructure Committee last week. AFF monitoring.

Mosley named to Agriculture and Industries board

Washington County Farmers Federation Director Emory Mosley was confirmed by the Senate Thursday as a member of the Agriculture and Industries Board of Directors.

Mosley serves on the Federation’s State Forestry Committee and also serves on the Legislative Forestry Study Committee.

Other nominations to the Agriculture and Industries board are pending, including John E. Walker, who serves on the Federation’s Board of Directors and as president of the Tuscaloosa County Farmers Federation.

The Agriculture and Industries board oversees the activities of the Department of Agriculture and Industries.

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